Alternate Approaches

Are We Happy Yet?

Our Gross Domestic Product keeps rising, but Americans are no happier. Why not? Little Bhutan has an answer Americans seldom hear.

By Sam Pizzigati

The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center has just released an epic report on who’s happy in the United States today and who’s not. The media coverage on this new survey, based on over 3,000 interviews conducted last fall, has zeroed in on the fascinating contrasts — and surprising similarities — between people and groups.

Retirees, for instance, turn out to be “no happier than workers.” And pet-owners appear to be no happier than the petless. But married people live happier lives than the unmarried, and people who live in the Sunbelt profess themselves to be happier than people who live in the North.

The happiest of all? The biggest smiles seem to belong to people with the biggest paychecks.

“The correlation between happiness and family income,” as the Pew study notes, “is very strong indeed.”

Fifty percent of people who make over $150,000 a year, the study relates, report themselves “very happy.” Only 23 percent of those under $20,000 feel that way. And those in between? The higher the income, the higher the happiness level.

Most media reports on this new Pew study have noted these numbers — and left the income side of the happiness story at that. But the Pew researchers actually had more to say on that subject, and that more speaks directly to the most striking theme that has emerged over the past several decades of happiness research.

That theme in a nutshell: More money does increase well-being, but only up to a point. Above that point, more money makes people no more or less happy. Above that point, it’s how much others make, not how much you make, that impacts your happiness.

“The trend data,” the Pew report sums up, “show that what matters on the happiness front is not how much money you have, but whether you have more (or less) at any given time than everyone else.”

Researchers have been documenting this same finding for years now, not just in the United States but across the world.

Money, notes one top international expert on “subjective well-being,” Bob Cummins of Deakin University’s Australian Centre for Quality of Life, “allows you to defend yourself against the bad things in life.”

“If a rich person is driving down the freeway and their car breaks down, they can call up their chauffeur to come and pick them up,” he explains. “If the same thing happens to a poor person, it’s disastrous.”

Research, Cummins continues, “shows that about 5 to 10 per cent of the population has a low level of well-being because they’re being defeated by their economic circumstances.” More income steadily improves well-being, until incomes hit $60,000 to $90,000. Over that level, well-being rises “only marginally until $150,000” — and not at all over that level.

Two American sociologists, Glenn Firebaugh of Penn State and Laura Tach of Harvard University, surveyed the increasingly massive research on subjective well-being in a paper they published last summer, Relative Income and Happiness.

“If richer people are happier because of what money can buy,” they observe, “then the unprecedented income growth of the past two centuries should have led to unprecedented growth in human happiness.”

That hasn’t been the case, and that reality has created a “general consensus among happiness scholars that the effect of income on satisfaction typically depends in part on comparison — on the size of our income relative to the incomes of our peers.”

“We find,” Firebaugh and Tach conclude after an analysis of U.S. happiness data from 1972 through 2002, “that the higher the income of others in one’s age group, the lower one’s happiness.”

The logical conclusion from this research? Last June, at the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness, held in Nova Scotia, Canada, Bhutan’s minister of Home and Cultural Affairs, Jigmi Thinley, spelled that conclusion out: Happiness demands equity.

Bhutan has become the first nation in the world to start compiling an official Gross National Happiness index, a measurement tool that seeks to uncouple social progress from a single-minded preoccupation with consumption.

This “GNH” index, Minister Thinley explained in his keynote address to the Nova Scotia conference, recognizes “that happiness cannot be found on the unending, rudderless journey powered by man’s insatiable greed.”

An economy geared to raising Gross National Happiness, he added, “must concentrate on redistribution of happiness through income redistribution,” since we live “in a world of distorted perceptions where people derive satisfaction from relative, and not absolute wealth or consumption.”

“The self-defeating, vicious spiral of catching up with or bettering the Jones’s amid unconscionable inequality,” Thinley concluded, “is a hindrance to collective happiness.”

“Are We Happy Yet?” asks the new Pew Research Center report on happiness in its title. We may not be happy yet, Bhutan’s Jigmi Thinley and a legion on happiness researchers all agree, but we could be — if we lived more equal lives.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your inbox.

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